A Question of Balance

How do you develop as a writer? It requires a balance of study and practice.

As a new writer, I heard that the average writer took seven years to go from being a novice to professional. I wondered if I could speed up the process. So I set a goal to begin making money within one year. To that end, I began to study (taking classes in college, reading books, and reading the works of other authors) on a daily basis. I also set goals for writing—finishing short stories, poems, and working on novel chapters on a weekly basis.

At the end of a year, not only was I making money as a writer, I had won several awards and landed multiple novel contracts. I’m convinced that if you’re dedicated, you can do the same.

Some writers, if given the choice, will study endlessly. I know authors who will read books on writing, go to workshops, listen to others, read the latest works, and hobnob at writing groups—but they don’t actually write.

Some of them have been studying for years but have never completed a novel, a short story, or even a poem. Are they really writers? Are they getting ahead? That’s debatable. They might be able to speak on panels at conventions loquaciously, but they’re not proving that they understand the process by doing it.

I was in one writing workshop years ago with my old friend Dean Wesley Smith. Dean was the “leader” of the workshop, and everyone there understood that they participated at his pleasure. So I was surprised one day when he pointed out people in the workshop—over half of the participants—and said, “You, you, you and you. . . haven’t written a story in three years. You’re all out of this workshop. Go ahead and leave now, and we’ll talk about letting you in when you’re writing again.” By doing that, he cut, as I recall, some twenty people from the crowded workshop. It was exactly what needed to be done.

Other authors will write extensively, practicing the craft out of the love of it, but they refuse to study, refuse to learn to do better. They become locked into bad habits. As a child, we used to say, “Practice makes perfect.” But children in school now wisely tell you, “No! Perfect practice makes perfect.”

In other words, you have to study other authors, you have to keep aware of emerging markets and business practices, you have to learn what you need to know in order to up your game, AND, you need to write.

So ask yourself: “Am I out of balance?” Do I need to “apply butt to chair,” as Heinlein put it, and practice more? Or do I need to actually study more?

For many authors, it might be a combination of both. You may just have to put your writing career on the back burner while you study your craft more. Or, you may have to set aside your incessant study and write for a change. Whatever you do, anything is better than nothing.

So here’s your challenge for today. Do what you need to do, whether you need to study more, practice more, or both. Then, do it again tomorrow.

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